Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

Some Adventures of Major Putnam

The vicinity of the mountain-girdled, island-dotted, tourist-inviting Lake George has perhaps been the scene of more of the romance of war than any other locality that could be named. Fort Ticonderoga, on the ridge between that beautiful sheet of water and Lake Champlain, is a point vital with stirring memories, among which the striking exploit of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain boys is of imperishable interest. Fort William Henry, at the lower end of Lake George, is memorable as the locality of one of the most nerve-shaking examples of Indian treachery and barbarity, a scene which Cooper's fruitful pen has brought well within the kingdom of romance. The history of the whole vicinity, in short, is laden with picturesque incident, and the details of fact never approached those of romantic fiction more closely than in the annals of this interesting region.

Israel Putnam, best known to us as one of the most daring heroes of the Revolution, began here his career, in the French and Indian War, as scout and ranger, and of no American frontiersman can a more exciting series of adventures be told. Some of these adventures it is our purpose here to give.

After the Fort William Henry massacre, the American forces were concentrated in Fort Edward, on the head-waters of the Hudson; Putnam, with his corps of Rangers, occupying an outpost station, on a small island near the fort. Fearing a hostile visit from the victorious French, the commander, General Lyman, made all haste to strengthen his defences, sending a party of a hundred and fifty men into the neighboring forest to cut timber for that purpose. Captain Little, with fifty British regulars, was deputized to protect these men at their labors. This supporting party was posted on a narrow ridge leading to the fort, with a morass on one side, a creek on the other, and the forest in front.

One morning, at daybreak, a sentinel who stood on the edge of the morass, overlooking the dense thicket which filled its depths, was surprised at what seemed to him, in the hazy light, a flight of strange birds coming from the leafy hollow. One after another of these winged objects passed over his head. After he had observed them a moment or two, he saw one of them strike a neighboring tree, and cling quivering to its trunk. A glance was enough for the drowsy sentinel. He was suddenly wide awake, and his musket and voice rang instant alarm, for the bird which he had seen was a winged Indian arrow. He had been made a target for ambushed savages, eager to pick him off without alarming the party which he guarded.

A large force of Indians had crept into the morass during the night, with the hope of cutting off the laborers and the party of support. The sentinel's alarm shot unmasked them. Whooping like discovered fiends, they flew from their covert upon the unarmed laborers, shot and tomahawked those within reach, and sent the others in panic flight to the fort. Captain Little and his band flew to the rescue, and checked the pursuit of the savages by hasty volleys, but soon found themselves so pressed by superior numbers that the whole party was in danger of being surrounded and slain.

In this extremity Captain Little sent a messenger to General Lyman, imploring instant aid. He failed to obtain it. The over-cautious commander, filled with the idea that the whole French and Indian army was at hand, drew in his outposts with nervous haste, shut the gates of the fort, and left the little band to its fate.

Fortunately, the volleys of musketry had reached the ears of Major Putnam, on his island outpost. Immediately afterwards his scouts brought him word that Captain Little was surrounded by Indians, and in imminent danger of destruction. Without an instant's hesitation the brave Putnam plunged into the water, shouting to his men to follow him, and waded to the shore. This reached, they dashed hastily towards the scene of the contest. Their route led them past the walls of the fort, on whose parapets stood the alarmed commander.

"Halt!" cried General Lyman. "Come into the fort. The enemy is in overwhelming force. We can spare no more men."

To these words, or similar ones, spoken by General Lyman, Putnam returned a vague reply, intended for an apology, but having more the tone of a defiance. Discipline and military authority must stand aside when brave men were struggling with ruthless savages. Without waiting to hear the general's response to his apology, the gallant partisan dashed on, and in a minute or two more had joined the party of regulars, who were holding their ground with difficulty.

"On them!" cried Putnam. "They will shoot us down here! Forward! We must rout them out from their ambush!"

His words found a responsive echo in every heart. With loud shouts the whole party charged impetuously into the morass, and in a minute were face to face with the concealed savages. This sudden onslaught threw the Indians into a panic. They broke and fled in every direction, hotly pursued by their revengeful foes, numbers of them being killed in the flight. The chase was not given up until it had extended miles into the forest.

Triumphantly then the victors returned to the fort, Putnam alone among them expecting reprimand. He had never before disobeyed the orders of his superior. He well knew the rigidity of military discipline and its necessity. Possibly General Lyman might not be content with a simple reprimand, but might order a court-martial. Putnam entered the fort, not fully at ease in his mind.

As it proved, he had no occasion for anxiety. The general recognized that alarm had led him too far. He welcomed the whole party with hearty commendation, and chose quite to forget the fact that Major Putnam was guilty of a flagrant disregard of orders, in view of the fact, of more immediate importance to himself, that his daring subaltern had saved him from public reprobation for exposing a brave party to destruction.

It was not long after this scene that Putnam took the leading part in another memorable affair, in which his promptitude, energy, and decision have become historical. The barracks within the fort took fire. Twelve feet from them stood the magazine, containing three hundred barrels of powder. The fort and its defenders were in imminent danger of being blown to atoms. Putnam, who still occupied his island outpost, saw the smoke and flames rising, and hastened with all speed to the fort. When he reached there the barracks appeared to be doomed, and the flames were rapidly approaching the magazine. As for the garrison, it was almost in a state of panic, and next to nothing was being done to avert the danger.

A glance was sufficient for the prompt and energetic mind of the daring ranger. In a minute's time he had organized a line of soldiers, leading through a postern-gate to the river, and each one bearing a bucket. The energetic major mounted a ladder, received the water as it came, and poured it into the flaming building. The heat was intense, the smoke suffocating; so near were the flames that a pair of thick mittens were quickly burned from his hands. Calling for another pair, he dipped them into the water and continued his work.

"Come down!" cried Colonel Haviland. "It is too dangerous there. We must try other means."

"There are no means but to fight the enemy inch by inch," replied Putnam. "A moment's yielding on our part may prove fatal."

His cool trepidity gave new courage to the colonel, who exclaimed, as he urged the others to renewed exertions,—

"If we must be blown up, we will all go together."

Despite Putnam's heroic efforts, the flames spread. Soon the whole barracks were enveloped, and lurid tongues of fire began to shoot out alarmingly towards the magazine. Putnam now descended, took his station between the two buildings, and continued his active service, his energy and audacity giving new life and activity to officers and men. The outside planks of the magazine caught. They were consumed. Only a thin timber partition remained between the flames and fifteen tons of powder. This, too, was charred and smoking. Destruction seemed inevitable. The consternation was extreme.

But there, in the scorching heat of the flames, covered with falling cinders, threatened with instant death, stood the undaunted Putnam, still pouring water on the smoking timbers, still calling to the men to keep steadily to their work. And thus he continued till the rafters of the barracks fell in, the heat decreased, and the safety of the magazine was insured.

For an hour and a half he had fought the flames. His hands, face, almost his whole body, were scorched and blistered. When he pulled off his second pair of mittens the skin came with them. Several weeks passed before he recovered from the effects of his hard battle with fire. But he had the reward of success, and the earnest thanks and kind attentions of officers and men alike, who felt that to him alone they owed the safety of the fort, and the escape of many, if not all, of the garrison from destruction.

Among Putnam's many adventures, there are two others which have often been told, but are worthy of repetition. On one occasion he was surprised by a large party of Indians, when with a few men in a boat at the head of the rapids of the Hudson, at Fort Miller. It was a frightfully perilous situation. To stay where he was, was to be slaughtered; to attempt crossing the stream would bring him under the Indian fire; to go down the falls promised instant death. Which expedient should he adopt? He chose the latter, preferring to risk death from water rather than from tomahawk or bullet.

The boat was pushed from the shore and exposed to the full force of the current. In a minute or two it had swept beyond the range of the Indian weapons. But death seemed inevitable. The water rushed on in foaming torrents, whirling round rocks, sweeping over shelves, pouring down in abrupt falls, shooting onward with the wildest fury. It seemed as if only a miracle could save the voyagers.

Yet with unyielding coolness Putnam grasped the helm; while his keen eye scanned the peril ahead, his quick hand met every danger as it came. Incessantly the course of the boat was changed, to avoid the protruding rocks. Here it was tossed on the billows, there it shot down inclined reaches, now it seemed plunging into a boiling eddy, now it whirled round a threatening obstacle; like a leaf in the tempest it was borne onward, and at length, to the amazement of its inmates themselves, and the astoundment of the Indians, it floated safely on the smooth waters below, after a passage of perils such as have rarely been dared. The savages gave up the chase. A man who could safely run those rapids seemed to them to bear a charmed life.


Shore of Lake George.

The other story mentioned is one indicative of Putnam's wit and readiness. The army was now encamped in the forest, in a locality to the eastward of Lake George. While here, the Indians prowled through the woods around it, committing depredations here and there, picking off sentinels, and doing other mischief. They seemed to have impunity in this work, and defied the utmost efforts at discovery. One outpost in particular was the seat of a dread mystery. Night after night the sentinel at this post disappeared, and was not heard of again. Some of the bravest men of the army were selected to occupy the post, with orders, if they should hear any noise, to call out "Who goes there?" three times, and if no answer came, to fire. Yet the mysterious disappearances continued, until the men refused to accept so dangerous a post. The commander was about to draw a sentinel by lot, when Major Putnam solved the difficulty by offering to stand guard for the coming night. The puzzled commander promptly accepted his offer, instructing him, as he had done the others,—

"If you hear any sound from without the lines, you will call 'Who goes there?' three times, and then, if no answer be given, fire."

Putnam promised to obey, and marched to his post. Here he examined the surrounding locality with the utmost care, fixed in his mind the position of every point in the neighborhood, saw that his musket was in good order, and began his monotonous tramp, backward and forward.

For several hours all remained silent, save for the ordinary noises of the woodland. At length, near midnight, a slight rustling sound met his keen ears. He listened intently. Some animal appeared to be stealthily approaching. Then there came a crackling sound, as of a hog munching acorns. Putnam's previous observation of the locality enabled him to judge very closely the position of this creature, and he was too familiar with Indian artifices, and too sensible of the danger of his position, to let even a hog pass unchallenged. Raising his musket to his shoulder, and taking deliberate aim at the spot indicated, he called out, in strict obedience to orders, "Who goes there? three times," and instantly pulled the trigger.

A loud groaning and struggling noise followed. Putnam quickly reloaded and ran forward to the spot. Here he found what seemed a large bear, struggling in the agony of death. But a moment's observation showed the wide-awake sentinel that the seeming bear was really a gigantic Indian, enclosed in a bear-skin, in which, disguised, he had been able to approach and shoot the preceding sentinels. Putnam had solved the mystery of the solitary post. The sentinels on that outpost ceased, from that moment, to be disturbed.

Numerous other adventures of Major Putnam, and encounters with the Indians and the French rangers, might be recounted, but we must content ourselves with the narrative of one which ended in the captivity of our hero, and his very narrow escape from death in more than one form. As an illustration of the barbarity of Indian warfare it cannot but prove of interest.

It was the month of August, 1758. A train of baggage-wagons had been cut off by the enemy's rangers. Majors Putnam and Rogers, with eight hundred men, were despatched to intercept the foe, retake the spoils, and punish them for their daring. The effort proved fruitless. The enemy had taken to their canoes and escaped before their pursuers could overtake them.

Failing in this expedition, they camped out on Wood Creek and South Bay, with the hope of cutting off some straggling party of the enemy. Here they were discovered by French scouts, and, having reason to fear an attack in force, it was deemed most prudent to return to head-quarters at Fort Edward.

The route proved difficult. It lay through dense forest, impeded by fallen trees and thick undergrowth. They were obliged to advance in Indian file, cutting a path as they went. When night came they encamped on the bank of Clear River. The next morning, while the others were preparing to resume the march, Major Rogers, with a foolhardy imprudence that was little less than criminal in their situation, amused himself by a trial of skill with a British officer in firing at a mark.

The result was almost fatal. Molang, the celebrated French partisan, had hastily left Ticonderoga with five hundred men, on hearing of the presence of this scouting party of provincials, and was now near at hand. The sound of the muskets gave him exact information as to the position of their camp. Hastening forward, he laid an ambuscade on the line of march of his foes, and awaited their approach.

Onward through the thicket came the unsuspecting provincials. They had advanced a mile, and were on the point of emerging from the dense growth into the more open forest, when yells broke from the bushes on both sides of their path, and a shower of bullets was poured into the advance ranks.

Putnam, who led the van, quickly bade his men to return the fire, and passed the word back for the other divisions to hasten up. The fight soon became a hand-to-hand one. The creek was close by, but it could not be crossed in the face of the enemy, and Putnam bade his men to hold their ground. A sharp fight ensued, now in the open, now from behind trees, in Indian fashion. Putnam had discharged his piece several times, and once more pulled trigger, with the muzzle against the breast of a powerful Indian. His piece missed fire. Instantly the warrior dashed forward, tomahawk in hand, and by threat of death compelled his antagonist to surrender. Putnam was immediately disarmed and bound to a tree, and his captor returned to the fight.

The battle continued, one party after the other being forced back. In the end, the movements of the struggling foes were such as to bring the tree to which Putnam was bound directly between their lines. He was like a target for both parties. Balls flew past him from either side. Many of them struck the tree, while his coat was pierced by more than one bullet. So obstinate was the contest that for an hour the battle raged about him, his peril continuing extreme. Nor was this his only danger. During the heat of the conflict a young Indian hurled a tomahawk several times at his head, out of mischief more than malice, but with such skilful aim that the keen weapon more than once grazed his skin and buried its edge in the tree beside his head. With still greater malice, a French officer of low grade levelled his musket at the prisoner's breast and attempted to discharge it. Fortunately for Putnam it missed fire. The prisoner vainly solicited more merciful treatment. The heartless villain thrust the muzzle of his gun violently against the captive's ribs, and in the end gave him a painful blow on the jaw with the butt-end of his piece.

The battle ended at length in the triumph of the provincials. They drove the French from the field. But they failed to rescue Putnam. Before retiring, the Indian who had made him captive untied him, and forced him to accompany the retreating party. When a safe distance had been reached, the prisoner was deprived of his coat, vest, shoes, and stockings, his shoulders were loaded with the packs of the wounded, and his wrists were tied behind him as tightly as they could be drawn. In this painful condition he was forced to walk for miles through the woodland paths, until the party halted to rest.

By this time his hands were so swollen from the tightness of the cord that the pain was unbearable, while his feet bled freely from their many scratches. Exhausted with his burden and wild with torment, he asked the interpreter to beg the Indians either to loose his hands or knock him on the head, and end his torture at once. His appeal was heard by a French officer, who immediately order his hands to be unbound and some of his burden to be removed. Shortly afterwards the Indian who had captured him, and who had been absent with the wounded, came up and expressed great indignation at his treatment. He gave him a pair of moccasins, and seemed kindly disposed towards him.

Unfortunately for the captive, this kindly savage was obliged to resume his duty with the wounded, leaving Putnam with the other Indians, some two hundred in number, who marched in advance of the French contingent of the party towards the selected camping-place. On the way their barbarity to their helpless prisoner continued, culminating in a blow with a tomahawk, which made a deep wound in his left cheek.

This cruel treatment was but preliminary to a more fatal purpose. It was their intention to burn their captive alive. No sooner had they reached their camping-ground than they led him into the forest depths, stripped him of his clothes, bound him to a tree, and heaped dry fuel in a circle round him. While thus engaged they filled the air with the most fearful sounds to which their throats could give vent, a pandemonium of ear-piercing yells and screams. The pile prepared, it was set on fire. The flames spread rapidly through the dry brush. But by a chance that seemed providential, at that moment a sudden shower sent its rain-drops through the foliage, extinguished the increasing fire, and dampened the fuel.

No sooner was the rain over than the yelling savages applied their torches again to the funeral pile of their living victim. The dampness checked their efforts for a time, but at length the flames caught, and a crimson glow slowly made its way round the circle of fuel. The captive soon felt the scorching heat. He was tied in such a way that he could move his body, and he involuntarily shifted his position to escape the pain,—an evidence of nervousness that afforded the highest delight to his tormentors, who expressed their exultation in yells, dances, and wild gesticulations. The last hour of the brave soldier seemed at hand. He strove to bring resolution to his aid, and to fix his thoughts on a happier state of existence beyond this earth, the contemplation of which might aid him to bear without flinching, a short period of excruciating pain.

At this critical moment, when death in its most horrid form stared him in the face, relief came. A French officer, who had been told of what was in progress, suddenly bounded through the savage band, kicked the blazing brands to right and left, and with a stroke of his knife released the imperilled captive. It was Molang himself. An Indian who retained some instincts of humanity had informed him of what was on foot. The French commander reprimanded his barbarian associates severely, and led the prisoner away, keeping him by his side until he was able to transfer him to the care of the gigantic Indian who had captured him.

This savage seemed to regard him with feelings of kindness. He offered him some biscuits, but finding that the wound in his cheek and the blow he had received on the jaw prevented him from chewing, he soaked them in water till they could be swallowed easily. Yet, despite his kindness, he took extraordinary care that his prisoner should not escape. When the camp was made, he forced the captive to lie on the ground, stretched each arm at full length, and bound it to a young tree, and fastened his legs in the same manner. Then a number of long and slender poles were cut and laid across his body from head to foot, on the ends of which lay several of the Indians.

Under such circumstances escape could not even be thought of, nor was a moment's comfort possible. The night seemed infinitely extended, the only relief that came to the prisoner, as he himself relates, being the reflection of what a ludicrous subject the group, of which he was the central figure, would have made for a painter.

The next day he was given a blanket and moccasins, and allowed to march without being loaded with packs. A little bear's meat was furnished him, whose juice he was able to suck. At night the party reached Ticonderoga, where he was placed in charge of a French guard, and his sufferings came to an end. The savages manifested their chagrin at his escape by insulting grimaces and threatening gestures, but were not allowed to offer him any further indignity or violence. After an examination by the Marquis de Montcalm, who was in command at Ticonderoga, he was sent to Montreal, under charge of a French officer, who treated him in a humane manner.

Major Putnam was a frightful object on reaching Montreal, the little clothing allowed him being miserably dirty and ragged, his beard and hair dishevelled, his legs torn by thorns and briers, his face gashed, blood-stained, and swollen. Colonel Schuyler, a prisoner there, beheld his plight with deep commiseration, supplied him with clothing and money, and did his utmost to alleviate his condition.

When shortly afterwards an exchange of prisoners was being made, in which Colonel Schuyler was to be included, he, fearing that Putnam would be indefinitely held should his importance as a partisan leader become known, used a skilful artifice to obtain his release. Speaking to the governor with great politeness and seeming indifference of purpose, he remarked,—

"There is an old man here who is a provincial major. He is very desirous to be at home with his wife and children. He can do no good here, nor anywhere else. I believe your excellency had better keep some of the young men, who have no wives or children to care for, and let this old fellow go home with me."

His artifice was effective. Putnam was released, and left Montreal in company with his generous friend. He took further part in the war, at the end of which, at the Indian village of Cochuawaga, near Montreal, he met again the Indian whose prisoner he had been. The kindly savage was delighted to see him again, and entertained him with all the friendship and hospitality at his command. At a later date, when Putnam took part in the Pontiac war, he met again this old chief, who was now an ally of the English, and who marched side by side with his former prisoner to do battle with the ancient enemies of his tribe.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Perils of the Wilderness  |  Next: Gallant Defense
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.